Chapter no 6

The Poppy War

Winter fell on Sinegard with a vengeance. The students enjoyed their last nice day in the autumn sunshine. The next morning, they woke up to find a cold layer of snow covering the Academy. The snow was nice, but a few minutes later, it was a pain in the ass.

The entire Academy became a risk zone for possible broken limbs. Streams froze and treacherous stairs collected sleet. Outdoor classes became indoors. The freshmen were assigned to spread salt on the stone paths at regular intervals to melt the snow, but regardless, the slippery paths sent a steady stream of students to the infirmary.

As far as Acervo was concerned, the freezing weather was the last straw for most of the class who had been coming intermittently to the garden in the hope that Jiang would show up; waiting in a drug orchard for a teacher who never showed up was one thing. , but waiting in such a temperature was another.

In the months since the semester had started, Jiang had not shown up to any classes. Students occasionally saw him around the Academy doing inexcusably rude things. He had taken the food tray from Nezha’s hands and walked away whistling, he had petted Kitay on the head while imitating a pigeon cooing, and he had tried to cut Venka’s hair with a pair of pruning shears.

Every time a student managed to corner him and ask him about his subject, Jiang would put his elbow to his mouth, fart, and walk away.


Rin, alone, continued to frequent Acervo’s garden, as it was a convenient place to train. Now that the freshmen resentfully avoided the garden, it was the only place she was sure to be alone.

She was also glad that no one could see her clumsily learning the Seejin text. She learned the basics with little difficulty, but even the second form was devilishly difficult to perform.

Seejin liked fast footwork, and here the diagrams failed him, from one image to another, the feet in the drawings changed to completely different angles. Seejin said that if a fighter could recover from any problematic position, no matter how close he came to falling, he would have achieved perfect balance and therefore the advantage in most fighting positions.

It sounded great in theory; In practice, it meant constantly falling.

Seejin recommended that his pupils practice the first form on an elevated surface, preferably on a thick branch or on top of a wall. Against his better judgment, Rin climbed halfway up the large willow tree that overhung the garden and positioned her feet hesitantly against the bark.

Despite Jiang’s absence during the semester, the garden remained immaculate and well-kept. It was a kaleidoscope of striking colors, like the colors of the exterior decorations of the Tikany brothels. Despite the cold, the purple and scarlet poppies had remained in bloom, their leaves trimmed in neat rows. The cacti, which were twice as big as they were at the beginning of the semester, had been moved to another set of pots painted in eerie patterns of black and burnt orange. Beneath the shelves, the luminescent mushrooms still pulsed with a slightly eerie glow, like tiny fairy lamps.

Rin figured an opium addict could spend entire days here. He wondered if that’s what Jiang did.

She positioned herself precariously on the willow tree, and, trying to stay upright against the strong wind, Rin held the book in one hand, muttering the instructions out loud as she positioned her feet.

—Right foot, pointing forward. Left foot behind, perpendicular to the straight line of the right foot. Shift your weight forward, raise your left foot…

I understood why Seejin thought this would be good balance practice and I also understood why Seejin strongly recommended against attempting the exercise alone. He staggered dangerously several times, regaining his balance after a few heart-stopping seconds of flapping his wings frantically. Calm. Focus. Right foot up, going around behind…

Master Jiang turned the corner, whistling loudly.

The Guardian’s touch .

Rin’s right foot slipped off the branch. He stumbled on the edge of the branch, dropped the book, and would have collapsed to the ground if his right ankle hadn’t caught in a knot between two branches.

He stopped abruptly with his face inches from the ground and breathed a sigh of relief.

Jiang watched her silently. She looked at him, her temples throbbing with accumulated Blood. The last notes of Jiang’s song faded into the howling wind.

-How are you? —She finally said.

His voice matched his attitude: placid, indifferent and idyllically curious. In any other context, she would be relaxing.

Rin struggled as best she could to get up.

-Are you OK? —She asked him.

“I’m stuck,” Rin murmured.

— Ummm . It seems.

He clearly wasn’t going to help her. Rin pulled her ankle off the branch, falling to the ground and landing in a mass of pain at her feet.

of Jiang. Cheeks burning, she stood up and brushed the snow off her uniform.

“Elegant,” Jiang remarked.

Jiang tilted his head far to the left, studying Rin intently as if she were a fascinating specimen. Up close, Jiang looked even stranger than he had thought. His face was an enigma, it was not marked by age, nor did it highlight youth, it was rather invulnerable to time, like a boulder. His eyes were a pale blue that he had never seen on anyone in the Empire.

—Somewhat daring, right? It sounded like she was holding back her laughter. Do you normally hang from trees?

“You startled me, sir.”

— Jummmf . He puffed out his cheeks like a little child. You’re Irjah’s pet ward, right?

His cheeks turned red.

—I… I mean, I don’t…

-You are. “She,” he scratched his chin and picked up the book from the floor, flipping through the pages with quiet curiosity. A dark little country girl prodigy, she never fails to blow you away.

Rin shuffled her feet wondering where this conversation was going. Had it been a compliment? Should he thank her? He tucked a strand of hair into his ear.

— Ummm .

“Oh, don’t pretend to be embarrassed.” You love it. Jiang took another look at the book and then at her. What are you doing with a Seejin text?

—I found it in the archives.

—Oh. I take back the bold thing, you are not bold. Just stupid. Rin looked confused, and Jiang explained.

—Jun explicitly prohibits Seejin until your second year.

She hadn’t heard that rule. It was no wonder that the apprentice had not let him take the book out of the library.

—Jun expelled me from his classes. She was not informed.

“Jun expelled you,” Jiang repeated slowly. She couldn’t tell if she amused him or not. What the hell did you do to him?

— Ummm , I knocked down another student in practice, more or less. “He started it,” she added quickly. The other student I mean.

Jiang seemed impressed.

—Stupid and temperamental.

His gaze passed over the plants on the shelves behind Rin’s back. He circled around it, bringing a poppy flower to his nose, and sniffed it, analyzing it. He grimaced, reached into the deep pockets of her clothes and pulled out a pair of scissors, then cut off the stem and tossed the flower into a pile in the corner of the garden.

Rin started to walk towards the door. Maybe if she left now, Jiang would forget about the book.

—Forgive me if I shouldn’t be here.

“Oh, you’re not sorry, you’re upset that I interrupted your training session, and you expect me to leave without mentioning your stolen book.” Jiang cut another stem from the poppy pot.

You’re fearless, you know? You were expelled from Jun’s class, so you decided to study Seejin on your own.

He took several syncopated breaths, it took him a while to realize that he was laughing.

-What is so funny? Rin demanded. Sir, if he is going to report on me, I would like to say…

—Oh, I’m not going to report anything. What would be fun about it? —He was still laughing—. Were you really trying to learn Seejin from a book? Want to die?

“It’s not that difficult,” he said defensively. I just follow the images.

He turned to her, with an expression of amused disbelief. He opened the book, flipped through the pages familiarly, and stopped at the one that detailed the first form.

-This. Make it. Rin complied.

It was a complicated form, full of shifting movements and changes in balance. She closed her eyes tightly as she moved, she couldn’t concentrate looking at the luminous mushrooms, and those disturbing pulsing cacti.

When he opened his eyes, Jiang had stopped laughing.

“You’re nowhere near ready for Seejin,” he said. She closed the book with one hand. Jun was right. At your level you shouldn’t even touch this text.

Rin faced a wave of panic. If he couldn’t even use the Seejin text, he could already go to Tikany. He hadn’t found any other book that was half as useful or clear.

“You might benefit from basics in animal-based forms,” Jiang continued. The work of Yinmen. He was the predecessor of Seejin. Have you heard of him?

She looked at him confused.

—I have looked for them, the scrolls are incomplete.

“Of course you won’t be learning from scrolls,” Jiang said impatiently. We will discuss this tomorrow in class.

-Class? You haven’t been here all semester! Jiang brushed it off with a gesture.

“I have a hard time bothering with First Years, except the ones I find particularly interesting.”

Rin thought he was just an irresponsible teacher, but she wanted Jiang to continue talking, because here she was, in a rare moment of lucidity, offering her instruction in the martial arts she couldn’t learn on her own. She was somewhat worried that if she said the wrong thing, she would run away like a scared hare.

“So, am I interesting?” —She asked him slowly.

“You are a walking disaster,” Jiang said bluntly. You are training with arcane techniques at a speed that will lead to inevitable injury, and not one from which you can recover. You have misunderstood Seejin so badly that I think you have invented new ways yourself.

Rin frowned.

“Then why are you helping me?”

“Mainly out of resentment toward Jun.” Jiang scratched his chin.

—. I hate that man. Do you know that he asked for me to be fired last week?

Rin was surprised that Jun hadn’t tried it sooner.

“Besides, someone so stubborn deserves some attention, if only to prevent you from becoming a walking danger to everyone around you,” Jiang continued. Also, your footwork is admirable.

Rin blushed.


“The position is perfect, the angles are wonderful,” he cocked his head. But of course, everything you’ve been doing is useless.

Rin frowned.

“Well, if you’re not going to teach me, then…”

—I didn’t say that. “You’ve done a good job just having the text,” Jiang acknowledged. A better job than many apprentices would have done. It is the strength of your upper trunk that is the problem or rather, the absence. “She” She grabbed his wrist, and raised his arm as if she were examining a doll. So thin, weren’t you a farmer or something?

“Not everyone in the south is a farmer,” Rin snapped, “she was a shop assistant.”

— Ummm . No heavy lifting then, darling. You are useless.

Rin crossed her arms against her chest.

—They didn’t pamper me…

“Yes, yes,” he raised a hand to interrupt her. It doesn’t matter, here’s the thing, all the techniques in the world will be of no use to you if you don’t have the strength to execute them. You don’t need Seejin, girl. You need ki . You need muscles.

-Then what do I do? calisthenics?

He stood motionless, contemplative for a long time, and then smiled.

—No, I have a better idea. Go to the Academy door for tomorrow’s class.

Before he could respond, Jiang trotted out of the garden.


“Wow,” Raban put down his chopsticks. He must have liked you a lot.

“He called me stupid and temperamental,” Rin said. And then she told me not to be late.

“He definitely liked you,” Raban said. Jiang never said a good word to anyone in my year. At most she yelled at us to get away from her daffodils. He told Kureel that with braids it looked like snakes were growing from the back of her neck.

“I heard he got drunk on rice wine last week and peed on Jun’s window,” Kitay added. He seems like someone fascinating.

—How long has Jiang been here? —Rin asked.

The Master of Heritage looked too young, even half Jun’s age, but he couldn’t believe that the other masters

put up with such questionable behavior from someone clearly younger.

-I’m not sure. It was here when I started my first year, but that doesn’t mean much. I heard that he came from the Night Castle twenty years ago.

—Jiang was from Cike ?

Among the Militia divisions, only the Cike had a bad reputation. They were a division of soldiers sheltered in the Night Castle, high in the Wudang mountain range, with the sole task of carrying out assassinations on the orders of the Empress. Those of Cike fought without honor, did not respect any rules in combat and were known for their brutality. They operated in the dark, doing the Empress’s dirty work and receiving no recognition afterwards. Most trainees would leave military service before joining the Cike.

Rin had a hard time reconciling his image as a capricious Master of Heritage with that of a seasoned assassin.

—Well, that’s the rumor. None of the maesters will say anything about him. I have the feeling that Jiang is considered the shame of the Academy. —Raban rubbed the back of his neck—. However, trainees love to gossip. Each course plays on the question of who is Jiang? My class was convinced that he was the founder of the Red Reed Opera. The truth has been stretched so much that the only thing certain is that we know absolutely nothing about him.

“I’m sure he’s had apprentices before,” Rin said.

“Jiang is the Master of Heritage ,” Raban said slowly, as if he were talking to a child. Nobody starts in Acervo.

—Why doesn’t Jiang accept any students?

“Because Acervo is a fucking joke,” Raban said. All other branches of Sinegard prepare you for a position in government or military command. But Acervo is… I don’t know, Acervo is weird. I think it was originally going to be the study of the underdeveloped inland lands, to see if there was any truth in their witchcraft rituals, but everyone lost interest very quickly, I know that Yim and Sonnen have asked Jima to cancel the classes, but is offered every year. I do not know why.

“There must have been Acervo apprentices in the past,” Kitay said. What do they say?

Raban shrugged.

—It is a new discipline, the others have been taught since the Red Emperor founded this Academy, but Acervo has only existed for a couple of decades, more or less, and no one has finished this branch. Two years ago, I heard, some linnets bit, but they left Sinegard and have never been heard from again. No one in their right mind would swear to Acervo, Altan was the exception, but no one knows what’s in Altan’s head.

“I thought Altan swore Strategy,” Kitay said.

—Altan could have chosen whatever he wanted, but for some reason he was dead set on Acervo. And Jiang changed his mind and Altan had to settle for Irjah.

For Rin, this was new.

—Does it often happen that the students choose the teacher?

—Almost never, most of us are already relieved to receive a proposal. He is an especially impressive student who

receives two.

—How many offers did Altan get?

-Six. Well, seven, counting Acervo, but Jiang withdrew his offer at the last minute.” Raban gave him a half glance.

And that curiosity about Altan?

“I was just wondering,” Rin answered quickly.

—You’ve fallen in love with our crimson-eyed hero, huh? “You wouldn’t be the first.” Raban smiled. Be careful, Altan is not very kind to admirers.

-How is? Rin couldn’t help but ask. As a person, I mean.

Raban thought for a moment.

—We haven’t been in class together since our first year. I don’t know him well, nor do I think anyone does. He is very closed in on himself, he is quiet, he trains alone and doesn’t really have any friends.

“Sounds like someone we know,” Kitay said, nudging Rin.

Rin got angry.

-Be quiet. I have friends.

“You have a friend,” Kitay said, “singular.” Rin pushed Kitay’s elbow away.

“But Altan is so good,” she said. Throughout. Everyone loves him.

Raban put on a patient face.

—Altan is more or less a god in this Academy. That doesn’t mean he’s happy.


Once the conversation turned to Altan, Rin forgot about half of the questions she intended to ask about Jiang, she and Kitay were asking for Altan anecdotes while the dinner break lasted. That night, she tried to ask Kureel and Arda about Jiang, but neither of them could tell her anything interesting.

“I’ve seen Jiang in the infirmary sometimes,” Arda said. Enro has a separate room prepared for himself. He stays a day or two every two months and then leaves, maybe he is sick. Or maybe he just likes the smell of disinfectant, who knows. Enro once caught him trying to get high on the smells of medicine.

“Jun doesn’t like Jiang,” Kureel said. It’s not hard to guess why. What kind of teacher behaves that way?

Especially in Sinegard? —Her face was pure disapproval.

—. I think it’s a disgrace for the Academy, why are you asking?

“For nothing,” Rin said. Just curious. Kureel looked at her with resignation.

—Each course falls into the trap at the beginning, everyone thinks that Jiang has more than he seems, that Acervo is a real discipline, that it is worth learning. But he has nothing, Jiang is a joke, you are wasting your time.

But the Master of Heritage was real, Jiang was a member of the Academy faculty, even if all he did was

wander and bother the rest of the maesters. No one could provoke Jun like Jiang did on a regular basis without suffering consequences. But, if Jiang didn’t bother to teach, what was she doing in Sinegard?


Rin was surprised to see Jiang waiting at the Academy gates the next afternoon, she thought he would forget. She opened her mouth to ask him where they were going, but he simply motioned for her to follow him.

He supposed he would have to get used to following Jiang around without clear explanations.

They had barely started walking when they met Jun, who was returning from city patrol with a group of his apprentices.

—Ah. The idiot and the peasant woman—Jun slowed his pace until he stopped, the apprentices were distrustful, as if they already knew the exchange that was going to happen—. And where are you headed on this beautiful afternoon?

“Nothing that matters to you, Loran,” Jiang said cheerfully.

He continued, circling Jun, but he stood in his way.

—A Master leaving the Academy with only one student… I wonder what they will say. —Jun’s tone narrowed next to her eyes.

“A Master of such rank and position should probably do a lot more than fool around with his female students,” Jiang replied happily, looking directly at Jun’s apprentices. Kureel looked outraged.

Jun frowned.

—She doesn’t have permission to leave the grounds, she needs written permission from Jima.

Jiang stretched out his right arm and tucked his sleeve up to his elbow. Rin thought he was going to punch Jun, but Jiang just put his elbow to his mouth, and farted loudly.

“That’s not a written approval.” Jun didn’t seem affected, Rin suspected that he had seen this stunt on multiple occasions.

“I am the Master of Heritage,” Jiang said. It is a privileged rank.

—Privileges like never imparting?

Jiang raised his chin and replied smugly:

—I have taught your class the oppressive feeling of disappointment and an even more important lesson, that they are not as important as they think.

—You have taught his class, and all the previous ones, that Acquis is a joke and that the Acquis Master is a clumsy idiot.

“Tell Jima to fire me, then,” Jiang raised his eyebrows.

—. I know you’ve tried.

Jun looked at the sky with an expression of eternal suffering. Rin suspected that this was just a small sample of an argument that had been going on for years.

“I’m going to inform Jima,” Jun warned.

—Jima has better things to waste his time on. As long as I bring little Runin in before dinner time, I doubt she’ll mind. Meanwhile, she stops blocking the path.

Jiang snapped his fingers and motioned for Rin to follow him. Rin snapped her mouth shut and followed him down the road.


—Why does he hate you so much? Rin asked as they left the mountain behind on their way to the city.

Jiang shrugged.

—They say I killed half of the men he had under his command during the Second War. He is still resentful.

-And you did it? —Rin she felt compelled to ask. She repeated the gesture.

—I don’t have the slightest idea.

Rin didn’t know how to respond to that, and Jiang didn’t give any further explanation.

“Well, tell me about your course,” Jiang said after a while.

The same bunch of spoiled brats?

“I don’t know them well,” Rin admitted. They’re all… I mean…

-Smarter? Better trained? More important than you?

“Nezha is the son of the Dragon Warlord,” Rin blurted out. How am I supposed to compete with that? Venka’s father is the finance minister. Kitay’s father is the minister

defense, or something like that. Niang’s family are the doctors of the Hare Warlord.

Jiang snorted.



—Sinegard intends to collect as many Warlord offspring as he can. Thus they are kept under the close surveillance of the Empire.

-So that? —She asked.

-Influence. Indoctrination. This generation of Warlords hate each other too much to coordinate anything of national importance, and the imperial bureaucracy has too little local authority to bind them. Just look at how the Empire’s navy is doing.

—Do we have a navy? —Rin asked.

“Exactly,” Jiang said with a laugh. We had. In any case, Daji’s hope is that Sinegard will forge a generation of leaders who appreciate, and more importantly, obey the throne.

“He has triumphed with me, then…” Rin murmured. Jiang gave him a crooked smile.

“Wow, aren’t you going to be a good soldier for the Empire?”

“I will be,” Rin said without hesitation. But I don’t think the majority of my class likes me very much, or ever will.

“Well, but that’s because you’re a little dark-haired commoner who can’t pronounce her R’s,” Jiang said amused.

He turned into a narrow corridor. Here.

He took her to the meat district, where the streets were narrow, crowded, and the smell of blood filled the air. Rin gagged and covered her nose with a hand as they walked forward. The butcher shops were crowded in the alleys, so close to each other that they seemed to be stacked, forming crooked rows like battered teeth. After twenty minutes of twists and turns, they stopped at a small shack on the corner. Jiang knocked on the rickety wooden door three times.

-That? —a voice croaked from inside, startling Rin.

“It’s me,” Jiang answered, undaunted. Your favorite person in the entire world.

There was the sound of metal against metal inside, and after a moment, a short, wrinkled lady, in a purple robe, opened the door. She greeted Jiang with a short nod, but she looked suspiciously at Rin.

“This is Widow Maung,” Jiang said. She sells me things.

“Drugs,” Widow Maung specified. I’m her dealer.

“It refers to ginseng, roots and the like,” said Jiang.

—. For my health.

Widow Maung made an exasperated face. Rin watched the exchange, fascinated.

“Widow Maung has a problem,” Jiang continued cheerfully.

Widow Maung cleared her throat and spat thick phlegm onto the ground next to Jiang.

-I have no problem. You are making this problem up for reasons I don’t know.

“Anyway,” Jiang said, maintaining her idyllic smile, “Widow Maung has kindly allowed you to help her solve her problem.” My lady, could she take the animal out?

Widow Maung disappeared into the back of the store. Jiang motioned for Rin to come in with him. Rin heard a loud screech from behind the wall, moments later, Widow Maung returned clutching a writhing animal in her arms. She dropped it on the counter in front of them.

“This is a pig,” Jiang said.

“That’s a pig,” Rin agreed.

The pig in question was small, like Rin’s forearm. Its skin was dotted with black and pink spots. His snout was curved upward, resembling a wide smile. It was strangely adorable.

Rin scratched him behind his ears and caressed his forearm affectionately.

“I named him Sunzi,” Jiang said happily.

It seemed that Widow Maung didn’t want to put up with Jiang any longer. He was quick to explain.

—Widow Maung needs Sunzi to drink water every day. The problem is that Sunzi requires a very special type of water.

“Sunzi could drink sewer water and be fine,” Widow Maung clarified. You’re making things up for this training exercise.

—Could we do it just like in the rehearsal? —Jiang asked. It was the first time Rin had seen him upset. You’re ruining the situation.

—Do they tell you that often? —inquired Widow Maung. Jiang snorted in amusement, and patted Rin on the back.

—I’ll explain to you. Widow Maung needs Sunzi to drink a very special water. Fortunately, this fresh, crystal clear water can be found in a stream at the top of the mountain. The point is to take Sunzi to the mountain, and that’s where you come in.

“You’re kidding,” Rin said. Jiang was beaming.

—Every day you will run to the city to visit the widow Maung. You will carry this adorable little pig up the mountain and let him drink. Afterwards, you will bring it back and return to the Academy.


—It’s a two-hour trip up and down the mountain!

“It’s a two-hour trip now,” Jiang said cheerfully.

It will be longer when this little guy starts to grow.

“But I have classes,” he protested.

“You’ll have to get up soon, then,” Jiang said. Anyway, it’s not like you have combat in the morning.

Remember? That someone was expelled?


” Someone, ” Jiang pointed out, “doesn’t really want to stay in Sinegard.”

Widow Maung snorted.

Affected, Rin picked up the piglet Sunzi in her arms, trying not to wrinkle her nose at the smell.

“Looks like we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other,” he grumbled. Sunzi squirmed and tucked his snout under her arm.


Every day for the next four months, Rin would get up before the sun rose, run as fast as he could up the mountain path, and go to the butcher block to pick up Sunzi, strap him to his back, and climb up. to the top of the mountain. She took the long way around, going around Sinegard so that none of her companions could see her running with a squealing pig.

He was often late for medicine.

—Where the hell have you been? And why do you smell like pork? Kitay wrinkled her nose as she sat next to her.

“I’ve been carrying a pig up the mountain,” he said. Obeying the whims of a moron. Finding a solution.

It was a desperate act, but he was in desperate times. Rin was entrusting his stay in Sinegard to the madman from the Academy. He began to sit at the back of the class so that no one could smell Sunzi’s traces on her when he returned from Widow Maung’s butcher shop.

But with the way everyone kept away from her, she wasn’t sure it mattered much.


Jiang did more than make him carry the pig. In a surprising streak of reliability, she waited for him in the garden every day at class time.

“You know, animal martial arts were not developed for combat,” he said. They were developed to promote health and longevity. The Revel of the Five Animals —he held up the Yinmen scroll that Rin had spent so much time looking for—is actually a system of exercises to improve blood circulation and delay the inconveniences of old age. It was not until later that these forms were adapted to combat.

—Then why am I learning them?

—Because Jun’s curriculum completely skips the Revelry . Jun teaches a simplified version of martial arts diluted and optimized for human biomechanics. But he leaves out too much, discarding centuries of heritage and refinement for the sake of military efficiency. Jun can teach you how to be a decent soldier. But I can teach you the key to the universe,” Jiang said grandly, before hitting his head on a low branch.

Training with Jiang had nothing to do with training with Jun. There was an obvious structure to Jun’s lessons, a clear progression from basic to advanced techniques.

But Jun would show Rin whatever random thing crossed his unpredictable mind. He would return to a lesson if he found it particularly interesting, otherwise he would act as if she had never existed. He would occasionally launch into huge tirades without provocation.

—There are five main elements present in the universe… Don’t look at me like that, it’s not as absurd as it seems. The ancient masters believed that everything was made of fire, water, air, earth and metal. Obviously, modern science has shown that this is not the case, but it is still a useful rule for understanding different types of energy.

»Fire: the heat of your blood in the middle of a fight, the kinetic energy that makes your heart beat harder —Jiang hit his chest—. Water: the flow of strength from your muscles to your target, from the earth through your waist, towards your arms. Air: the breath you breathe in, which keeps you alive. Earth: how you stay rooted to the ground, how you derive energy according to your posture to the ground. And metal, for the weapons you wield. A good martial artist has all five elements in balance. If you can control them all with the same skill, you will be unstoppable.

—How will I know if I control all five? She scratched behind her ears.

—Good question, actually, I’m not sure.

Asking Jiang for further explanations was inevitably infuriating. Her answers always had meaningless words, forming absurd sentences. Some made sense days later, others never did. If she asked him to elaborate, she changed the subject, if he ignored her most absurd comments (your water element is not balanced!) She nagged him insistently because she didn’t ask questions.

His speech was strange, always a point too fast or too slow, with strange pauses between words. She laughed in two ways, the first was always out of place, it was

nervous, sharp and obviously forced; the other was magnificent, deep and powerful. The first he heard constantly, the second was infrequent, and it startled him when it occurred. She rarely looked him in the eye, she seemed to focus instead on a spot between her eyebrows.

Jiang moved through the world as if he didn’t belong there, as if he came from a country of almost humans, of people who acted almost exactly like the Nikara, but not quite, and his attitude was that of a confused traveler who no longer even knew what to do. He didn’t even try to imitate whoever he was around. He did not belong, not simply to Sinegard, but to the very idea of ​​a physical earth, he acted as if the rules of nature did not apply to him.

Maybe they didn’t.



One day they went to the top of the Academy, past the maesters’ quarters. The only building on that level was a tall spiral pagoda, with nine floors elegantly stacked on top of each other. Rin had never entered.

He remembered, from the guided tour all those months ago, that Sinegard Academy had been built on the grounds of an ancient monastery, the pagoda on the upper layer could well have been a temple. Near the entrance, there were several old stone wells for burning incense, and guarding either side of the door, were two large cylinders mounted on tall poles that allowed them to rotate. As he approached, Rin saw that characters were engraved on the ancient nikara.

-What are they for? Rin asked, turning one of the cylinders.

“They’re prayer wheels, but we don’t have time to talk about that,” Jiang said, gesturing for her to follow him. Here.

Rin expected the nine floors of the pagoda to be full floors connected by stairs, but the interior merely contained a spiral staircase leading to the top, everything else was an air cylinder. A lone ray of sunlight shone from an opening in the ceiling, illuminating the specks of dust floating in the air. A series of old paintings hung around the staircase, it looked like the place hadn’t been cleaned in decades.

“This is where the statues of the Four Gods used to be,” Jiang said, pointing to the dark void.

-Where are you now?

Jiang made a helpless gesture.

—The Red Emperor looted most of the religious images when he took over Sinegard, almost all of them were melted down and turned into jewels. But that does not matter. “He” motioned for Rin to follow him up the stairs.

Gave him a history lesson as they ascended.

—Martial arts came to the Empire through a warrior named Bodhidharma who came from the southeast of the continent. When Bodhidharma encountered the Empire in his travels around the world, he came to a monastery and asked for entry, but the first abbot denied him entry, so Bodhidharma sat in a nearby cave facing the wall for nine years, listening to the ants scream.

—Listening to what ?

—The ants scream, Runin, be attentive. Rin cursed under his breath. Jiang ignored her.

—Legend says that the intensity of his gaze made a hole in the cave wall. The monks were so moved by his religious devotion, OR so impressed that someone could be so stubborn, that they finally let him into their temple. Jiang stopped in front of a painting in which there was a dark-skinned warrior and a group of white men in robes. That one in the center is Bodhidharma.

“That guy on the left has a bleeding stump,” Rin observed.

-TRUE. Legend also says that there was a monk so impressed with his dedication that he cut off his hand in sympathy.

It reminded Rin of the myth of Mai’rinnen Tearza, who committed suicide for Esper’s unification with the continent. The history of martial arts seemed to be filled with people making meaningless sacrifices.

—Well, the temple monks were interested in what Bodhidharma had to say, but because of their sedentary life and poor diet, they were fucking weak. Skinnier than even you, and they also fell asleep during their readings. Bodhidharma was quite bothered by it, so he devised three sets of exercises to improve his health. Although these monks were in constant danger from outlaws and thieves, due to their religious code, they were prohibited from having weapons. So they modified the exercises to create a system of unarmed self-defense.

Jiang stopped before another painting. He showed a row of monks lined up on a wall, frozen in the same posture.

—That’s… —Rin was impressed.

—The first form of Seejin, exactly. —Jiang nodded. Bodhidharma warned the monks that martial arts were about the refinement of the individual. Well-used martial arts would produce a wise leader, a man who could see clearly through the fog and understand the will of the gods. Originally, martial arts were not created to be just a military tool.

Rin had a hard time imagining the techniques Jun had taught them as just health exercises.

—But there had to be an evolution in martial arts.

-Correct. —Jiang waited for Rin to ask the question she wanted to hear.

She complied.

—When were martial arts adapted for widespread military use?

Jiang shook his head, pleased.

—Shortly before the Red Emperor, the Empire was invaded by Riders from the northern Hinterlands. The invading forces implemented a host of repressive measures to control the indigenous population, including prohibiting the Nikara from carrying weapons.

Jiang stopped again before a painting showing a horde of Inland hunters mounted on enormous steeds. Their faces were twisted into wild, barbaric grimaces, and they had arches longer than their torsos. In the part of

Below the painting, there were Nikara monks paralyzed by terror, or scattered in different states of dismemberment.

—Temples, once havens of nonviolence, became sanctuaries for any anti-northern rebels and a center for revolution planning and training. Soldiers and sympathizers wore monks’ robes and shaved their heads, and trained for war on the temple grounds. In those sacred spaces, they plotted the blow to the regime of their oppressors.

“And healthy exercises would hardly have helped them,” Rin said. Martial techniques had to be adapted.

Jiang nodded again.

—Exactly, the arts taught in the temples required the progressive mastery of hundreds of long and intricate forms, it took decades to master them. The leaders of the rebellion, fortunately, realized that this process could not sustain the rapid development of a fighting force.

Jiang faced Rin, they had reached the top of the pagoda.

—And so martial arts were developed, a system based on human biomechanics rather than animal movements. The enormous variety of techniques, some only marginally useful to a soldier, were distilled into fundamental forms that could be taught to a soldier in five years instead of fifty. This is the basis of what is taught at Sinegard, it is the common core taught to the Imperial Militia. It’s what your companions are learning – he smiled – and I’m teaching you how to defeat it.


Jiang was an effective, if flamboyant, combat instructor. He made him hold a kick in the air for endless minutes until his legs trembled. He made him evade and duck as he launched projectiles from the weapons rack at him. He would make her repeat the same exercises blindfolded, and later admit that he had thought that would be fun.

“You’re a real asshole,” he replied, “you know that, right?”

Once Jiang was satisfied with his fundamentals, they began practicing. They fought every day, for hours. They fought with fists and with weapons, sometimes Rin without weapons, while Jiang used one.

“Your mental state is as important as the state of your body,” Jiang explained. In the confusion of struggle, your mind must be calm and firm as a rock. You have to be connected to your center, be able to see and control everything. Each of the five elements must be in balance. Too much fire, and you will lash out without caution. Too much air and you will fight scared, always on the defensive. Too much dirt, and are you listening?

She wasn’t doing it, it was hard to concentrate as Jiang slashed at her with a halberd, forcing her to dance around him to avoid sudden impalement.

In general, Jiang’s metaphors had little meaning to her, but she did quickly learn to avoid punches, and perhaps that was the point. She developed muscle memory, learning that there was a limit to the permutations of ways a human body could move, a certain number of combinations of attacks that could be effective, and that she could reasonably expect from her opponent. She learned to react

automatically. He learned to predict Jiang’s movements seconds ahead, to read what he was going to do next from the tilt of her torso or the movement of her eyes.

He pushed her to her limits relentlessly, fighting more fiercely when she was exhausted. When she touched the ground, she attacked him as soon as she stood up. She learned to constantly be on guard, to react to his slightest movement in her peripheral vision.

And the day came when he placed his hip against his at the right angle, forcing his weight onto his side and, projecting all his strength in a specific direction, and threw him over his right shoulder.

Jiang skidded across the stone floor and hit the garden wall, shaking the shelves, endangering a cactus that almost crashed to the ground.

Jiang stood there for a moment, stunned. Then he raised his eyes, met hers, and smiled.


The last day with Sunzi was the hardest.

Sunzi was no longer an adorable little pig, but a huge monster that stunk terribly. It couldn’t be considered cute by any means, all the affection that Rin had felt for those trusting brown eyes had been replaced as the animal’s tremendous belly grew.

Carrying Sunzi up the mountain was torture. Sunzi could no longer fit in any bag or sling, and Rin had to put him over her shoulders and hold him by his front legs.

He couldn’t move as fast as before, when he could carry Sunzi in his arms, but he had to if he didn’t want to miss breakfast or worse, miss a class. She woke up earlier, ran faster, staggered up the mountain, gasping for air with every step. Sunzi was behind him resting her muzzle on his shoulder, enjoying the morning sun while Rin’s muscles groaned with resentment. Upon reaching the stream where Sunzi was drinking, he let go of the pig, letting it fall to the ground, and it collapsed.

“Drink, you glutton,” he growled at Sunzi as he frolicked in the river.

—. I long for the day when they cut you open and devour you.

Going down the mountain, the sun began to beat down hard, drawing streams of sweat from Rin’s body everywhere, despite the cold of winter. He arrived weakly at the meat district and entered Widow Maung’s shack, where he dropped Sunzi to the ground. It rolled over, let out a little squeal and started running in circles chasing its tail.

Widow Maung appeared at the entrance carrying a bucket of waste.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Rin gasped.

Widow Maung shook her head.

“There will be no tomorrow, at least not for this one,” he rubbed Sunzi’s nose. Going to the butcher tonight.

Rin looked at her surprised.

-As? As soon?

“Sunzi has already reached her maximum weight.” Widow Maung patted Sunzi’s sides. Look at that belly,

None of my pigs have ever grown that big. Maybe your moron teacher was right about the mountain water. Maybe he should send all my pigs up there.

Rin hoped he wouldn’t, and with his breathing still heavy, he bowed to the widow.

—Thank you for letting me take your pig. Widow Maung cleared her throat.

“Academy nuts,” he murmured, and approached Sunzi to take him back to the pigsty. Come on, let’s get you ready for the butcher.

Oink? Sunzi looked imploringly at Rin.

“Don’t look at me,” Rin said. It’s the end of your road.

He couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. The more she looked at Sunzi, the more intense her memory of her little pig became. She tore her eyes away from Sunzi’s dull, candid gaze and turned to the mountain.


-Already? —Jiang seemed surprised when Rin informed him of Sunzi’s fate. He was sitting on the wall farthest from the entrance, swinging his legs over the edge, like a child. Ah, he had high hopes for that pig. But at the end of the day, pigs are pigs, how do you feel?

“I’m devastated,” Rin said. Sunzi and I were starting to understand each other.

—No, idiot, your arms. Your abs. Your legs. How do you feel them?

He frowned and shook his arms.


Jiang jumped off the wall and headed towards her.

“I’m going to hit you,” he announced.

-Wait to?

He dug his heels into the ground and barely managed to raise his elbows before I punched him in the face.

The force of the impact was enormous, stronger than he had ever been hit before. She knew he should have deflected the blow, dispersing the ki into the air where it would have spread harmlessly. But she had been too surprised to react, except to block it head-on, and reflexively remember to duck to channel the attack’s ki through her body and toward the ground unharmed.

A crack like thunder echoed below her.

Rin jumped, scared. The stone beneath her feet had cracked from the force of the scattered energy, and a huge crack opened between her feet along the entire length of the slab.

The two looked at the crack that continued to split the stone floor, extending to the end of the garden, and stopping at the foot of the willow tree.

Jiang laughed, throwing his head back.

It was a loud and wild laugh, he laughed as if his lungs were bellows, he laughed as if he were not human at all. She spread her arms like wings and danced, with happy abandon.

“You’re a wonderful girl,” he said, turning to her. You’re brilliant, girl.

Rin smiled.

Fuck it , she thought, and jumped into his arms.

He lifted it up, turning it around and around in the kaleidoscope of the strange colors of the mushrooms.


They sat together under the willow tree, looking placidly at the poppy plants. Today the air was calm, the snow was still falling lightly on the garden, but the first signs of spring could already be noticed. The terrible winter wind had gone to blow elsewhere, and the air was calm, for the first time, at peace.

“No more training for today,” Jiang said. Rest, you have to release the string for the arrow to fly.

Rin rolled her eyes.

“You have to swear the Acquis,” Jiang continued excitedly. Nobody.

Nobody. Not even Altan, she understood everything so quickly.

Rin suddenly felt embarrassed, how was she going to explain to him that the only reason she wanted to learn combat was to pass the Trials and study with Irjah?

Jiang hated lies, so Rin decided she could be clear about it.

“I’ve been thinking about Strategy,” he said hesitantly. Irjah told me that she could make me an offer.

Jiang waved a hand.

“Irjah can’t teach you anything you can’t learn yourself.” Strategy is a limited subject, spend enough time on the battlefield with Sunzi’s Principles at your pillow, and you will have everything you need to win a campaign.


—Who are the gods? Where do they reside? Why do they do what they do? These are the fundamental questions of Acervo. I can teach you much more than ki manipulation , I can show you the path to the gods. I can turn you into a shaman.

Gods and shamans? It was often difficult to tell when Jiang was joking and when he wasn’t, but he now seemed truly convinced that he could communicate with heavenly powers.

Rin swallowed the lump in her throat.


“This is important ,” Jiang insisted. Please, Rin. This is a dying art, the Red Emperor almost managed to destroy it, if you don’t learn it, if no one learns it, then it will disappear forever.

The sudden desperation in his voice made her feel deeply uncomfortable.

He played with a blade of grass between his fingers, the truth is that he was curious about Acervo, but he knew well that he should not throw away four years of training with Irjah to pursue a branch that the rest of the maesters considered lost, since a long time ago. She had not come to Sinegard

to chase legends on a whim, especially legends disdained by everyone in the capital.

He was really fascinated by myths and stories, and the way Jiang made them seem authentic. But she was more interested in passing the Tests, and studying with Irjah would open doors for her in the Militia, and guaranteed her, at least, an officer position and choosing her division. Irjah had contacts with the twelve Warlords, and her protégés always obtained valued positions.

She could lead her own troops one year after graduating, she could be a nationally renowned commander in five. She couldn’t throw it all away for a mere fantasy.

“Master, I just want to learn to be a good soldier,” she said. Jiang’s heart sank.

“You, and the rest of this school,” he said.


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